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BOSTON -- Legacy IT shops see promise -- and specters -- in digital transformation efforts, and low-code platform vendors have positioned themselves at the heart of that transition.
The latest version of OutSystems' low-code platform, OutSystems 11, aims to help enterprise IT modernize legacy applications and improve the user experience. The platform adds real-time visibility into system performance and end-customer feedback via its Insights service, container support for portability to public and private clouds, and upgrades geared toward team collaboration and security. Additionally, the new version has an enhanced drag-and-drop UI and more screen templates.
Those features fit right in with two glaring enterprise needs, said Jason Wong, an analyst at Gartner and speaker at the company's NextStep conference here this week. Enterprises must modernize inflexible web or mobile UIs despite a shortage of skilled developers, so a low-code platform such as OutSystems 11 can enable citizen developers and line-of-business professionals to create desired functionality, or time-starved developers to quickly build the applications.
"[Enterprises] don't have the resources and the skill sets to go and create a custom-coded application stack," Wong said. The average designer-to-developer ratio in enterprises is 21-to-1, whereas in digital-native companies it's closer to 4-to-1, he said. "It's very fragmented in terms of different ways that [legacy dev teams] would approach creating a new modern app. Low-code tools offer that full-stack approach," he said.
NES Financial, a fintech company based in San Jose, Calif., adopted OutSystems seven years ago to push its treasury management application to production in six months, said Izak Joubert, the company's CTO and chief architect. The company architected the third generation of its systems to incorporate the microservices features unveiled in OutSystems 11.
Joubert said he had some mixed feelings about OutSystems 11 -- as he does with all software releases -- but the product "moves a whole bunch of things along that had been lagging."
OutSystems also claimed it has 39 artificial intelligence initiatives in the works for 2019, including features for AI-assisted development and monitoring.
Developer wariness slacks
Developers have unprecedented influence in enterprise IT, said OutSystems CEO Paulo Rosado in his keynote. "Developers fundamentally control IT departments," he said. "It didn't used to be that way."
Jason Wonganalyst, Gartner
That level of influence initially hindered low-code platforms that abstracted away some of developers' responsibilities with compiled code, and adoption was slow or limited to smaller projects.
Daryl Van Johnson advocated for more widespread low-code adoption at his former IT shop, but visibility became too great a concern, he said. "OutSystems doesn't really show you everything that's happening behind the scenes. If [developers or managers] changed something, they wanted to be able to see the code," he said.
Now an independent developer at HomeLAN Consulting Services based out of University Park, Ill., Van Johnson said OutSystems enables him to complete projects three to four times faster than with traditional coding approaches, and OutSystems 11 screen templates will make his work even easier. "Sixty percent of your work is done, just like that," he said.
On the other end of the spectrum is Rollins Inc., the Atlanta-based parent company of pest control services businesses Orkin and HomeTeam Pest Defense. One of its siloed development teams replaced a decade-old legacy app with one built in OutSystems to provide reports for commercial customers to meet regulatory pest-control requirements. The company is rolling that approach into broader app-dev efforts, said David Christian, senior application architect at Rollins. "I'm excited that they put us into the mainstream, so that we can have some influence there," he said. "It'll be interesting to see if we're considered real developers or not."
Ultimately, developers want these platforms to boost their productivity and give them transferable skills, not complicate or eliminate their jobs. "The challenge for a lot of the low-code vendors is to create that ecosystem, create the training and the demand generation from the development community to make sure that it's thriving," Wong said.
Keep it simple, low-code providers
Low-code platform as a service (PaaS) providers pitch their products' speed and simplicity, which can free up IT to focus more time on what Wong calls "multi-experience development" of chatbots, augmented reality and other emerging technologies. But those platforms have little wiggle room -- if compiled code must be fixed or an enterprise's needs exceed the platform's capabilities, it could require more development help and negate the benefits of low code.
"If you're trying to create a super-high-end, platform-specific experience, low code is going to offer more of a ceiling and more barriers to achieving that," Wong said.
Joubert's team at NES Financial prepared for the features of OutSystems 11, but "it will be minor refactoring to package [apps] more as microservices," he said.
Up against big vendors such as Salesforce.com, Microsoft and Google, and established low-code and no-code providers such as Mendix and Appian, OutSystems also must deliver an enterprise-grade product to justify its steep price tag -- Enterprise and Universal subscription levels incur respective monthly costs of $5,400 and $12,250, billed annually.
"It's kind of pricey," Van Johnson said. "You have to commit [and get the funding] to get your system to a point where it can actually be functional."